March 2012: I’ll be honest, I first learned about Okinawa from watching the movie Karate Kid II. The romantic scenery, ancient honor code system, enchanting flute music and powerful Karate scenes left me filled with wonder about Okinawa. There is also World War II. Okinawa saw some of the bloodiest battles in World War II that raged between Japanese and American forces, and many tunnels and war relics remain as reminders of this devastating past. Tragic as it is, this past and the resiliency of the Okinawan people after the tremendous suffering they endured in the war is fascinating. Then I found out from my uncle Tom, that he was stationed in Okinawa in the 1950’s when he was in the Marines. He spent a significant amount of time there training and studying Okinawan martial arts. His time there on the island was very spiritual and meaningful to him and when he expressed to me that he would love for nothing more than to someday return to Okinawa one more time in his life, I told him that I would love to go with him, to learn about his adventures there and to learn about its culture and war history. My uncle was so determined to go that not even a heart attack could stop him. Our plan was to meet in Tokyo, spend a few days there and then fly to Okinawa and travel around the island in a rental car.

 

About Okinawa

Since the Middle Ages, Okinawa was part of a prosperous independent island kingdom known as the Ryuku Kingdom. Then things started to go downhill in the late 1800s when Japan invaded and attempted to eliminate its culture. The culmination of bad occurred in the 1940’s when the island was caught in the middle of the fighting between Japan and the United States in World War II. Okinawa was the center of the bloodiest ground battle in the war. For 85 days, almost 100,000 Japanese and 20,000 American soldiers were killed. Okinawans bore the brunt of the battle however losing up to a quarter of its population-150,000 dead.  Then after the end of the war, Okinawa was occupied by US forces and to this date the island is home to thousands of US troops and 32 bases and has been used as a staging point for countless American wars. As a result of environmental disasters caused by the presence of American military and criminal offenses by a few, including one guy I went to high school with who was stationed in Okinawa in the Navy and raped a young Okinawan girl, many Okinawans have become resentful towards American servicemen and have protested their presence on the islands. I discovered the resentment firsthand when I observed signs on some Okinawan bars banning American servicemen, in some cases specifically black American servicemen from entering or when I reached out to a few local Okinawans for accommodation for my uncle and I, and was told that American servicemen like my uncle, even though it had been decades since he was in Okinawa, were not welcome to stay in their accommodation. Despite this and I don’t blame them for feeling this way, we would discover the Okinawan people to be extremely hospitable. 

Okinawa today is part of Japan and its tropical island beaches, and waters attract thousands of tourists to its islands every year, mostly from mainland Japan. Besides exploring the rich culture and history of the island, it also has a unique rain forested ecosystem and incredible coral reefs. The martial art of Karate originated in Okinawa among its indigenous peoples and there are many learning centers. 

Map of our route in Okinawa

Starting the Trip in Narita

After a week tracking Siberian tigers in Russia’s Far East, I flew to Tokyo via Beijing to meet my uncle who was arriving from Minnesota. I stayed one night in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese hotel by myself in the city of Narita, while awaiting my uncle and then for another night with my uncle. Narita is a much nicer city than I expected with the centuries old Naritasan Shinshoji Buddhist Temple, being the main attraction with its beautiful architecture and wooden temples and stunning gardens and coy fishponds.

Staying at a ryokan is the way to go while in Japan. This is because the price tends to be cheaper than hotel accommodation, and in a country as expensive as Japan, this matters a lot. Secondly, ryokans are traditional, and it is more common to encounter other Japanese business/leisure travelers than foreign tourists and this gives you an opportunity to meet new Japanese friends. Ryokans tend to be family run for generations, if not centuries, and have great traditional food. The rooms are usually done in the traditional tatami matted Japanese style.

Ryokan main dining room with ancestoral portraits and shrine including a samurai sword

I would often eat or just order beer in the dining room of the ryokan. On one occasion a very intoxicated group of Japanese business travelers at the table next to me invited me over to their table to share their food and drink. Even though they couldn’t speak English, they tried, and we had a blast together and they taught me how to do a toast before drinking, which we did over and over again.

 

My new Japanese friends at the Ryokan

The room with tatami-matted rooms and a mattress where my uncle and I slept

Shinshoji Buddhist Temple

My original thoughts of Narita were that it would be a generic, busy, industrial airport town. I was shocked to discover that the old town was beautiful with a relaxed pace and the area was very natural- surrounded by forest. Then there is the Shinshoji Buddhist Temple, built in 940 and simply stunning. The gardens, ponds and architecture of its temples are leave you almost spiritually awe struck.

 

Coy pond in the grounds of the Shinshoji Buddhist Temple

My uncle paying his respects at the Shinshoji Buddhist Temple

Tokyo

We spent a few days exploring Tokyo too which is easily accessible by train from Narita. Tokyo is one of the few large cities of the world that I really enjoy. All of the hustle and bustle of the world’s biggest city, which in any other country would just be chaos, is laid out before you in an orderly Japanese fashion. It is fascinating to explore the entertainment districts, small micro pubs, bizarre nightlife and a never-ending line of restaurants serving incredible food. Then there are the Japanese people. Despite the huge number of people in Tokyo, they never cease to be polite and courteous, and, on many occasions, strangers would go out of their way to help me with directions or with a translation of a sign. One example of this was when my uncle and I were in a very long line to enter to the Tokyo Tower, when the Japanese lady working the ticket counter saw my uncle’s disabled military vet card, she immediately announced out loud that he and his assistant-referring to me should go direct to the elevator and she escorted us there. 

 

At night the streets of the city and its various suburbs take on a magical form. The exotic sights, smells and sounds are truly captivating.

My uncle and I had a few beers in this microbar hosted by this elderly couple who have owned the bar for generations. The man showed us the WWII sword of his father, a veteran captain in the Japanese Army. The sword and other family portraits were posted on the walls of the bar for us to admire. 

Pachinko Gambling Hall, common sighting

Harajuku Shopping District

Police Officers in a Watch Tower in Very Close Quarters

Arriving in Okinawa

After a few days in Narita and Tokyo, my uncle and I flew on a 747 via ANA Airlines to Naha, Okinawa, located in a southern island archipelago of Japan called the Ryuku islands. We arrived in the evening and checked into a local Ryokan. Then we went to a restaurant with Okinawan food and listened to live traditional Okinawan music played on a sanshin, Habu snake skinned 3 string guitars. My uncle was chosen from the crown to help perform, an experience that he clearly enjoyed.

 

Okinawan Live Performance

Okinawan Live Performance with my uncle

The next morning, I woke up early at 7am to start the day and my uncle had already been out since pre-dawn exploring Naha reminiscing his earlier days. We picked up our rental car which had a GPS that I paid for. The problem is the GPS only read and spoke in Japanese. The vehicle was a stick shift, which I can drive but the gears would always stick and then there was adapting to the very different Japanese driving rules and signs as well as the joy of driving on the left side of the road, opposite from what I’m accustomed to.

Our first stop was at the scenic Ryuku Kingdom era Nakagusuku Castle overlooking the ocean. The highlight of the castle was walking on a path through the rich native vegetation and coming across an overgrown royal family tomb.

 

Ryuku Kingdom-Nakagusuku Castle

A Royal Family Tomb overgrown by vegetation

Me at the Ryuku Castle

My uncle at the Ryuku Castle

We stopped by my uncles old Marine Base, Camp Hansen and received permission to enter. The young marines on base were thrilled to meet my uncle and when we were pulled over by the military police for going a few miles over the speed limit, the MP’s quickly let us go without hesitation when they discovered my uncle was stationed in the base in the 1950’s.

Afterwards we visited the Kin Kannonji Buddhist temple, built in the 1500s. The highlight was visiting the nearby Nisshu Cave with its Buddhist shrines inside and cave rooms full of rice wine bottles stored deep inside its cool chambers to keep it preserved. The cave is named after a Buddhist monk who washed ashore in a storm from China and helped the villagers eradicate the cave of the habu snakes that infested it and terrorized the townsfolk. This included one monster Habu snake. The monk vanquished the snakes with his magic and a shrine dedicated to him still remains in the cave. His Majic is believed to still protect the cave from the snakes to this day. 

 

 

Me in Nishu Cave sitting next to where rice wine bottles are stored

My uncle showed me some of his old haunts he used to hang out at, and most were gone, or some locations remained just with different faces.  Then we drove as far up the northeastern side of the island as we could until we arrived at a quiet seaside village with a long stretch of beach. One memorable moment happened while in a local shop. An elderly Okinawan man that ran the shop sat peacefully playing his sanshin, Habu snake skinned 3 string guitar. Seeing traditional music especially on traditional instruments always brings me happiness.

As the day became late and we very tired, we were not finding any hotels in the villages we passed. So, we stopped to ask a local Okinawan lady in a tiny almost non-existent seaside village if there were any places to stay. She very kindly offered her guesthouse to us, which was more like an extension to her house instead of a guesthouse and she even cooked us a giant traditional Okinawan dinner. The village nestled along a long serene beach was perfect and just what we were looking for. 

 

Beach Outside of Our Hotel 

In the morning, we enjoyed the serenity of the beach and then set off afterwards on our drive further north. As we continued further north, the road became narrower, we encountered fewer villages, and the jungle grew thicker. There were signs to alert drivers to the possible sightings of giant coconut crabs and sea turtles crossing the road to lay their eggs and we would stop often to admire the many amazing views. I hiked through the jungle down a steep hillside to find a lonely swimming hole with a waterfall. 

One interesting observation we had was of a group of school kids on a field trip. They were gathered on the side of the road sifting through the jungle underbrush. My uncle asked one of the teachers what they were doing, and the teacher explained their project is to find one object, it can be anything in the jungle, a seed, leaf, insect….and to take it home, research it and give a presentation on it to the rest of the class. I like this idea. It helps to promote conservation and awareness and pride in the natural environment that inevitable will be the responsibility of these children to protect when they grow older. 

Jungle of northern Okinawa

Waterfall I hiked through the jungle to find and had a swim in

We stopped to admire some of the traditional architecture in the sleepy fishing villages. It was great to visit villages that relied on fishing and seemed to remain traditional instead of depending on tourism. 

Traditional House

Then we visited Cape Hedo, the furthest northern point of Okinawa with its dramatic views of the ocean, coral reefs and sea cliffs.

View from Camp Hedo

View from Camp Hedo

View from Camp Hedo

After Cape Hedo we rounded the point and began heading south again on the other side of the island. I stopped to visit another waterfall in the rainforest. I wanted to go for a quick swim in the Hijio waterfall located deep in the lush rainforest, while my uncle stayed back in the park by the car to journal. All along the trail there were signs warning hikers of the deadly habu, a venemous snake feared throughout Okinawa. My uncle recounted his tunnel training when he came face to face with a habu in the Okinawan jungle. The falls were nice but forbidden for swimming. The highlight of the hike was when a habu snake came leaping out of the jungle right before me catching a frog in its mouth mid-air.

Hijio Waterfall

Habu Snake that Attacked a Frog in front of Me

Afterwards we continued driving until we arrived at our first real hotel stay in the trip in the city of Nago. Our hotel even had bathrobes with the hotel name on it that became our souvenirs.  We visited a nearby white sand beach with picture clear waters, but the best nearby attraction was the one that was unexpected. When we were lost on a side road driving between some jungle clad mountains, we came across a traditional Okinawan cemetery-ohaku, which consisted of ancestorial tombs carved out of limestone cliffs. Some of the tombs were in a shape of a womb. The Okinawans believe that all life begins when it emerges from the womb, so it only makes sense to return to the womb in death. We walked around the tombs, many abandoned with the entrance door missing. Inside were various vases, pieces of pottery and what appeared to be broken family relics that held the ashes and memories of generations of Okinawan families. Some of these tombs and vases were ancient looking and likely were around during the traditional practise that took place when Okinawan women would place a body of the recently diceased on a stone slab inside the tomb,  allow the body to decompose for one year, then return to remove any flesh that still remained on the bones, grind up the bones into a powder and place the powder inside of the vases that we were likely looking at inside the tomb. 

My uncle walking along the beach

Womb shaped traditional tomb

Family artifacts inside a tomb

The next day we headed south to Naha to visit the underground tunnel network that the Japanese Imperial Navy built to fight the American forces during World War II. The tunnels are an elaborate system built deep within the Earth. We ended up lost at a Lawsons store asking for directions when an Okinawan man standing behind me overheard me and offered to show us where the tunnels are. He motioned us to follow him in his car and amazingly he drove 30 minutes out of his way before we arrived at the tunnels and when we arrived, he waved and drove off with no expectation of anything in return. The kindness of strangers never ceases to amaze me in my travels.

Japanese WWII Tunnels

Imperial Navy Meeting Room During WWII

The Japanese tunnels are extensive and expand for miles underground. Only a few are restored, and the rest are abandoned and almost collapsed from the fighting in the war. It was amazing to stand in the room where Japanese commanders once made battle decisions to command the Imperial Navy and where an admiral committed suicide when he realized all was lost.

Suicide Cliffs

Next, we drove to the far south of the island where the city gives way to rural life again. The south is where the most intense fighting occurred in WWII and there are reminders of the war everywhere such as more Japanese war tunnels, memorials of battle fields and cemeteries. Okinawa was the bloodiest battle in WWII and my own uncle’s uncle fought in Okinawa with the Marines and died there.

The saddest place we visited was suicide cliffs, where hundreds of Okinawans jumped to their deaths convinced by the Japanese that the invading Americans were evil boogey man that would rape and torture them.

Japanese War Tunnels

War Memorial with the name of my uncles uncle who died fighting in the Marines on Okinawa

Our last two nights in Okinawa were spent in Naha at a ryokan. We explored the city, markets and old castles, while my uncle recounted his memories and tried to find any resemblance of the buildings and places he once knew. According to him, everything had changed.  The fish market with its exotic foods and centenarian women working the booths was fascinating. Okinawan is known as one the top places on Earth with the most 100-year Olds because of its healthy lifestyles and diets.

Fish Market Naha

Fish Market

Eldely Okinawan lady Still Working in Fish Market

Fish market

Pig Head with Sunglasses in the Fish Market

Then there is the Habu snake wine believed by Okinawans to possess magical abilities to give sexual strength to men.

Habu Snake Wine

The best part of exploring Naha was getting lost and just walking the streets exploring, especially at night when the streets were empty. At night in my experience when solitude and quite sets in, and streets empty of people, a places true character and history becomes more palpable. We came across old wooden buildings with incredible Okinawan architecture, vestiges of the royal past of Okinawa such as random castle walls that are now surrounded by urban development. In our wanderings, we met many friends and shared drinks with a few.

Walls left over from the old kingdoms castle. The banyan tree sprouted from a seed that washed over to the shores of Okinawa in a tsunami hundreds of years ago. 

My uncle sharing drinks with new friends

Despite all of the beauty of Okinawa, there is a dark side as well. When I wondered the streets, I came to a street full of bars that had signs posted in the front indicating no black GIs allowed, directed to black American soldiers. There definitely is resentment from Okinawans towards American bases on the island because of the actions of some criminal soldiers in the past but I was surprised to see such overt racism in the open.

Naha Nightlife

Spending a week in Japan and Okinawa with my uncle is still one of my favorite trips. He is a kindred spirit and has always been one of the few people to completely understand me and my travels and I will always treasure this time I spent with him exploring and learning about his past.

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